Toronto·ONTARIO VOTES 2022

Children with autism deserve better, parents say to PC candidates in protests across Ontario

Ontario parents of children with autism held a day of action against Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives on Saturday because they say his government did not provide their families with enough support.

Ontario Autism Coalition holds day of action against PC party because of waitlists for services

Members of the Ontario Autism Coalition protest outside the office of Progressive Conservative candidate Robin Martin in Toronto on Saturday as part of a day of action. Coalition members are angry because they say there has been a lack of provincial support for families of children with autism. (CBC)

Ontario parents of children with autism held a day of action against Doug Ford's Progressive Conservatives on Saturday because they say his government did not provided their families with enough support.

The parents protested outside the campaign offices of several Ontario PC election candidates in such cities as Toronto, Mississauga, Ottawa, London, Sudbury and Thunder Bay. Parents said they wanted to sound the alarm after they have spent thousands of dollars of their own money to pay for services.

"This government has caused at least a four-year delay in children accessing autism services," Angela Brandt, president of the Ontario Autism Coalition, said at a Toronto protest. "That's a lifetime for our children. These children will never reach their full potential as a result of that."

Brandt said the coalition would like to see children with autism enrolled in support services as soon as possible.

"There has been no urgency on the part of this government to get our children into service," she said. "This government developed a new program which they are calling needs-based and it's not. There are caps based on age. Our children are all unique. It doesn't matter what age your child is. Their needs are what counts. We want a truly needs-based program with no age caps."

Brandt said the government has also not spent the full budget it has for children with autism and the coalition wants it to spend that money.

Protesters in Ottawa hold placards outside the campaign office of Progressive Conservative candidate Lisa MacLeod. She is running for the PCs in Nepean. (Submitted by Ontario Autism Coalition)

In a news release, the coalition says the Ford government allowed a waitlist for needs-based therapy for children with autism to grow to more than double its size in the past four years. The coalition says there are names of more than 53,000 children on the waitlist and it takes an estimated eight years for a child diagnosed today to get services.

With the election less than a week away, the coalition said it held the day of action to enable voters to hold PC candidates accountable.

Campaign has ignored issues facing families, dad says

Derrick Crowe, whose son Elliot, 10, is a high needs child on the autism spectrum, said on Saturday that he think the election campaign has largely ignored the issues facing families of children with autism.

The current funding model for services that his son needs is not working, he said. He's still on a waitlist, he added. The family is spending nearly $20,000 a year of its own money for services.

"There's not been enough focus. There's not been enough discussion. I don't believe there has been enough debate about what the province can do to support families like us," Crowe said.

"When it comes down to making relationships with other kids, he has a number of difficulties. We need professional support, professional advice, as to how to best meet the needs of him."

Crowe said he would like to see a plan from the government and would like to feel as though his family has provincial support. The COVID-19 pandemic hit the family hard because his son was not getting the services he needed, he said.

Derrick Crowe poses with his son, Elliot, at a Toronto Blue Jays game. Elliot is a high needs child on the autism spectrum. (Submitted by Derrick Crowe)

In North York, outside the office of PC candidate Robin Martin, a dozen parents of children with autism and their advocates expressed frustration on Saturday.

Philip Lerner, 22, a self-advocate for autism, said the government failed to make services for children with autism a priority.

"I was lucky enough when I was a lot younger to get services, but there are so many kids who, even in the best cases, were diagnosed at the age of two and they might be waiting until ages five or six to even be considered for services," Lerner said.

In 2019, the government tried to roll out a new autism program with the aim of clearing the waitlist, but scrapped it after it sparked outrage among parents because it was age-based instead of needs-based.

Ford's office defends new program

In a statement to CBC Toronto, Ivana Yelich, spokesperson for Ford's office, said its new program is needs-based and the government increased it to $600 million a year.

"We've doubled the Ontario Autism budget to $600 million, which is a larger investment than any government in Ontario's history," Yelich said in the statement.

"When we took office in 2018, only 8,500 children were receiving support through the Del Duca-Wynne Liberals' broken program and that support was limited to behavioural therapy," Yelich continues.

"Today, roughly 40,000 children and youth with autism are receiving support through multiple streams. That's nearly five times more than at any point under the Del Duca-Wynne government."

Yelich said the PCs will continue their efforts to get children and youth with autism and their families the support they need.